Eye treatment device wins Universities SW Enterprise Awards

Issue date: 09 December 2009

Jennifer Griffiths - winner of Student Award A device that could improve treatment of an eye disease affecting 30 million people worldwide has won the first Universities South West Enterprise Award 2009 (USWEA). These awards, open to universities from the South West of England, are aimed at finding the best idea in the west. The competition's goals are to encourage people to set up businesses, to become more employable, to learn skills and to stimulate the regional economy.

The prototype of the winning entry, which reduces the frequency of painful and costly injections for macular degeneration, a condition leading to blindness, is about to undergo clinical trials. Called Selo, the device is being developed by Dr Srilakshmi Sharma and Michael Cornish from the University of Bristol.

Their business idea came top in the staff/alumni category at the recent awards ceremony, hosted by the University of the West of England (UWE) at its new Exhibition and Conference Centre. Injections for macular degeneration can cause a small reflux of fluid, containing the drug, to come out of the eye. The Selo device stops drug reflux by creating an effective barrier to the wound, meaning an increased interval between injections of two weeks on average, and a reduction of 1-3 injections per patient per year.

Winner of the award for best student plan was Jennifer Griffiths, also from the University of Bristol, with her business idea called Snap Fashion. Her idea is for a price comparison website with a difference, where fashion-hunters can upload a photo of their desired item and let the software find the best match at a bargain price. She said, “Receiving this award is great. The cash prize will help me to build the business and winning means I am more confident going into meetings where I could potentially get more investors.”

The importance of clarity of vision as one of the 'soft skills' needed by entrepreneurs was emphasised by UWE Vice-Chancellor Steve West. He said, “This competition recognises the value of entrepreneurship, business talent and acumen. Universities are stepping outside their academic comfort zones into the real world, showing they are prepared to innovate, be creative, be brave and courageous, be visionary and entrepreneurial, and be able to recognise risks and mitigate them.”

The USWEA have grown from individual Universities' business plan competitions, and the previous inter-University competition, the Knowledge West (KW) Enterprise Awards. Guest speaker Gillian Higgins, who won last year's KW Enterprise Award with her company Horses Inside Out, gave an inspiring account of how winning the accolade had helped her business grow. Combining her skills with horses, anatomy and as an artist, she paints the bones, muscles and internal organs on the sides of horses. As they move, she can demonstrate to horse owners and trainers which muscles are being used, showing how the musculo-skeletal system works, and aiding diagnosis and therapy.

Gillian, who is a graduate from Royal Agricultural College said, “What a year it has been since winning last year. It gave a great financial boost to the business, raised its profile and boosted my confidence.”

The runners-up of the staff/alumni award were Poppy Stephenson and Andy Smith from UWE. They are part of the Bristol Festival Community Group, which organises an annual volunteer-led community festival, showcasing South West talent in music, comedy, art and circus skills, and providing valuable work experience. Andy said, “Being recognised by this competition is great – it means other people get our idea, and understand it. We are gaining massive prestige as well as money, which opens up opportunities for sponsorship and helps get other sponsors on board.”

The runner-up for the student award was James Zorab, from the University of Bath, with his idea for connecting UK students abroad with landlords and services in the cities they are studying in.

Judge Nick Bacon said, “Starting a business is like jumping off a cliff – you either hit the bottom or fly with the eagles. This is not a good ideas competition –it is a serious strategic business planning process.”

Serial entrepreneur Andy Nash, who is chairman of Merrydown Cider plc and of Somerset Cricket Club, also spoke at the awards ceremony. He said, “Despite the harsh economic conditions, you can't keep entrepreneurs down. Opportunities always exist, and entrepreneurs must grasp them. The most important skills are the soft ones – leadership, vision, looking after your assets and looking after the people that look after them for you. It is about teamwork and passion – and that's what strikes me about these contestants.”

The awards offer a total prize fund of £10,000 to recognise and reward students, staff and alumni for their efforts in setting up new businesses and social enterprises. There are prizes for the best student plan and for the best staff/alumni plan, with runner-up awards for both categories.

Institutions taking part in the competition were: Arts University College Bournemouth, Bournemouth University, University of Bath, University of Bristol, University of Exeter (Cornwall Campus), University of Gloucestershire, University of Plymouth, Royal Agricultural College and the University of the West of England. The competition is part of the Knowledge Escalator South West (KESW) programme managed by Universities South West which has been supported by over £2.3 million of European Regional Development Funding investment through the South West RDA.

For more information on the Universities SW Enterprise Awards 2009 visit http://www.uwe.ac.uk/enterpriseawardssw

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